The first market-ready self-driving car is poised to come from General Motors Co., which submitted its federal safety proposal Thursday to put a robotic vehicle with no steering wheel or gas pedal on public roads in 2019.
The petition filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration seeks permission to deploy the autonomous cars, built on the Chevrolet Bolt EV platform, next year. It also asks permission to meet 16 safety requirements “in a different way,” Paul Hemmersbaugh, GM’s chief counsel and public policy director for transportation and service, said on a conference call.
The Detroit automaker is gearing up to meet its deadline for deploying a driverless ride-hailing service next year in a yet-to-be-named city. If the federal safety highway agency approves GM’s petition, the automaker could build up to 2,500 of these vehicles per year, though the automaker has not committed to a firm production plan.
Should the Cruise AV hit the road as planned, it would represent for Detroit a sort of holy trinity in a single package: a driverless car summoned by an on-demand ride-hailing service powered by an all-electric powertrain.
Gaining federal approval is no small step, nor is it guaranteed. Federal safety regulation language revolves around human drivers and vehicles engineered to be piloted by a human driver — as opposed to artificial intelligence. GM is attempting to prove to the federal government that it can maintain safety equal to what is already required, but without a human or the steering wheel.
And even if GM gains federal approval, it still has to negotiate at a state level. There are only seven states in which the Cruise AV could deploy immediately after federal approval, including Michigan. The other six are North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Texas, Colorado and Nevada.
The production-ready Cruise AV, which is also what GM calls its self-driving Bolts already on the road for testing in San Francisco, would be the automaker’s fourth-generation driverless car in just 18 months. All of GM’s autonomous cars are developed with Cruise Automation, a Silicon Valley start-up the automaker acquired in 2016 to speed up development.
“When GM acquired Cruise, we began by installing our technology into existing cars as a retrofit strategy, and we knew that wouldn’t scale,” Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt said. “In the last 18 months, we’ve worked to rapidly and iteratively integrate this technology into a production-ready vehicle.”
It’s not clear where the vehicles will be built. The Bolt is currently assembled at Orion Assembly plant in Orion Township, as is GM’s growing fleet of self-driving vehicles.
GM’s deployment plan for the Cruise AV is built on a driverless ride-hailing service that would operate in a geo-fenced area where the automaker has developed high-definition map data. The cars would operate as a fleet and share data, according to GM’s self-driving safety report.
The cars will be equipped with OnStar crash-response, which will automatically alert an OnStar representative and predict the severity of injuries in the event of a collision.
Crosstown rival Ford Motor Co. has yet to say — or show anyone outside of the company — what its production autonomous vehicle will look like. That company said more than a year ago it would launch a self-driving car without a steering wheel, a brake pedal or an accelerator by 2021. Since taking over as CEO in May, Jim Hackett has steered Ford to rethink its plans for autonomous vehicles.
The Dearborn automaker is targeting delivery and fleet services at launch rather than focusing solely on autonomous vehicles as ride-sharing vehicles like other automakers. Ford has said it will debut an all-new hybrid electric nameplate built in Flat Rock for the fleet. The vehicle will be “commercial grade” and “designed for purpose.”
The company wants to launch a vehicle that partners can use throughout the day to maximize profitability. Ford executives have said several times in recent months that the company wants to run its vehicles for as many hours a day as possible with minimal downtime.
Waymo, the former Google self-drive project, said at the end of last year it was ready to pull safety drivers from the front seat of its autonomous Pacifica minivans. But it didn’t plan to remove manual controls.
Tesla Inc. also lags behind GM in developing its first fully self-driving car, despite touting its Autopilot system as self-driving. The Silicon Valley automaker has struggled with mass-production — a problem that doesn’t faze a company like GM, which has been rolling cars off the assembly line for more than a century.
“We are super-excited,” GM president Dan Ammann said, “to share with you this notable point on the journey to large-scale AV deployment.”
Detroit News Staff Writer Ian Thibodeau contributed.